Archive for January, 2019


January 26, 2019

We didn’t have a long day working at Dorris Ranch, a Springfield park by the bend of the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.  It rained a little, but not much, and we knocked off at about 1:30, after four and a half hours of trail building.

We originally went out to do drainage work on a stream and discovered a trail which was muddy, eroding, and not useful.  Instead of drainage work, we built a new trail, connecting it to two others.  Such work necessitated one’s hacking out some grasses and shrubs, another’s digging down to bare soil to make a path a couple of feet wide, followed by more of us enlarging the path, moving the dirt off the trail, trying to save as many endangered Oregon Grape plants as possible, all the while avoiding poison oak plants standing like sentinels, waiting for the unwary to brush against them and carry the poison off on their skin or clothing.

I was especially attuned to poison oak, for two weeks earlier, I neither saw see the leafless plant at another park where I worked, nor did I wipe myself with isopropyl alcohol at the trailhead to denature the toxic urushiol.  I didn’t smear Tecnu lotion on myself when I got home and missed the last chance I had when I didn’t shower with Dawn dishwashing liquid.  Four days later, I broke out with a rash and was sentenced to two weeks of a itchy rash on my arms, inner thighs, chest and neck.  For this payment, I worked hard as a volunteer. 

I was ready to stop digging when the crew leader suggested we all knock off for the day.  I walked back to the car, trying to wash the mud off my boots on the way.  I found a small stream and stood in it for a while, cleaning the shovel, the hoe, and the McLeod, a large hoe on one side, and a serrated rake on the other, created by a USFS ranger in 1905.  

Back at the car, I knew I had errands to run, and I also needed to go to the toilet.  I looked around, saw a nearby restroom and walked up a short hill to get there.  The door was blocked wide open, floor damp, meaning it had been cleaned, so I unblocked the door, closed it, did my business, telling someone who rattled the door I was in there, washed up and walked out, not thinking to block the door open again because I knew somebody was waiting.  

A young woman wearing a park hat was waiting. She did not look pleased.

“We blocked the door open because the chemicals in there need to dry,” she said.

I thought to myself: “It’s really humid today–like drizzling–nothing is going to dry.” I answered, “I was going to block the door,” not adding, “until I saw that someone was waiting.”

“No you weren’t,” she retorted. “You were walking away.” The woman had gone from retorting to severely reprimanding me, and she was coming very close to outright berating me.

My father always told me not to get into a pissing contest with a skunk.  But I was tired and had just pissed, so I continued, “Excuse me.  I  just spent four and a half hours building trail for you guys and I needed to use the toilet.  Next time, I will use the woods.”  I walked away.  

It’s better not to argue with those who won’t change their minds, be the issue climate, what you think of the president, or whether you committed a sin by using a bathroom that had just been cleaned and then deliberately walked away without re-blocking the door.  It’s easier and saves energy. 

For the record, I clean toilets—men and women restrooms—at Rowe Sanctuary every spring, and if people need to use one and the floor is wet, I tell them that.  I don’t tell them to hold it because the floor has to dry.  I even put up yellow signs on the floor.  They are in two languages.  I don’t reprimand “offenders.”

I don’t know whether the woman thought I was homeless.  I could have looked it with mud on my clothes and my hair not exactly combed.  My hard hat was in the car.  What was I supposed to do?  Wait?  I think so.  She was young, perhaps not realizing that some older men need to use the toilet and can’t wait.  I have been in that latter situation before, although I wasn’t in it today.  

Sadly, I let the incident get to me that afternoon and for the next couple of days.  I was going to write this post saying I might not go back, and if I did, I wouldn’t use the restroom but the nearby woods, and she shouldn’t be poisonous to those who deal with poison oak as a volunteer in her park.  So there.

If I were on social media, where posts are too often made without thinking, unedited, and one has the “satisfaction” of “really nailing” an issue or a person, the ending would have been catchy, but a bit childish, which is a lot of what passes on social media these days, I guess.  I am a year away from Facebook, so I’m out of date.

In any case, I process slowly. What I think a few days after an incident is different from what it is the same day.  Yes, there should have been a sign saying, “Wet Floor,” but peeing in the woods in a city park is a bit much, even for me, unless I’m off my alpha-blocker.

I did go back to work at the park the following week. We finished the trail, hauled rocks using a wheelbarrow, and built a bridge.  Before we went out, I took the park person who was supervising our work aside and dispassionately told him my experience.  I said what was relevant and factual: “I did not see a sign,” does not exclude the fact that there might have been one.  I did not mention that the incident ruined an afternoon. That had nothing to do with the matter.  The supervisor understood that restrooms need to be cleaned, yes, but also that some times people need to use them before everything is perfectly dry.

After all, maybe the woman was having a bad day.  Maybe she had problems at home.  Maybe she was ill.  Maybe she even had a poison oak rash that annoyed her.  Yes, she needed to be thinking that perhaps this person really didn’t want to wet his pants, toilets are made to be used, and I wasn’t making a mess on the floor.  

She may still think I am a jerk, but I don’t have to make threats of what I will and won’t do in the future.  Those threats will hurt me, not the parks, except for maybe a tree’s getting too much nitrogen. I had a valid point, and she felt she had one, too.  Most importantly these days of polarization, I could see her point, even if I didn’t agree with it.  That’s not weakness, despite what many think. 

Maybe the next time, there will be a sign in two languages.  Maybe the sign will say “please leave the door open when you leave.”   Or even, “We aim to please.  You aim too, please.”

McLeod, good for trail work, pulling plants, beveling the sides, moving the dirt.


January 19, 2019

I hadn’t planned to go to the astronomy meeting the other night, but I had missed several of the previous monthly meetings, and tired as I was, for I had been trail building that day, decided I ought to put in an appearance.  It wasn’t like anybody was going to notice my presence, but I would feel better for having gone.

January meetings of the Eugene Astronomical Society (EAS) are devoted to the public, where anybody who received a telescope for Christmas can bring it and club members volunteer to show them how to make it suitable for observing.  Jerry, the secretary, was profiled in the paper a few days earlier about the event, and I hoped to walk in, look around briefly, and then go home.

When I arrived, there were about thirty people, a few talking amongst themselves, the rest clustered around half a dozen telescopes of various sizes.  The first telescope I saw was bright orange, immediately triggering memories and interest from me, not only because of the color, but it was an 8-inch Celestron, the same model as my first big telescope.  

The owner had obtained it from his brother and drove up from Cottage Grove for help.  He was being helped by an old guy—these days, that is someone at least in his mid-70s—who was easy to listen to.  The old guy—John— was helping align the telescope, and while I had once done that with mine and never again changed it, I stayed silent allowing John’s words to fall over me as memories came flooding back.

The night I first observed and somehow found the Ring Nebula in Lyra, M57; the summer night in 1989 I watched the star 28 Sgr pass through Saturn’s rings as the planet’s motion gradually covered it; the two thousand double stars I had “split;” several hundred galaxies identified; several dozen globular clusters seen; a hundred variable stars observed throughout their cycles.  I had carried that telescope to star parties in rural Tucson, to schools nearby, and even had it in the parking lot of a hotel at Palm Desert one night in 1995, so I could show interested people—and there were many that night—Saturn’s rings edge-on. I enjoy showing people the night sky, even being auctioned off once for a night’s observing.

I didn’t say much other than assured the owner that he would see Jupiter’s moons just fine, as well as many of Saturn’s, and it was a good piece of equipment.  John instructed him about eyepieces, with the comment I hadn’t heard before, or if I had, long since forgotten:  “A good eyepiece will make a sh—-y telescope good, and a bad eyepiece will make a good telescope sh—-y.”

My first telescope launched me into a twenty year stretch where I was astronomy columnist for the Arizona Daily STAR, and my 750 columns taught me how to write something interesting weekly for beginners, learning to create columns while doing other things, like walking, aimless thinking, or observing the night sky.  I tried to see the sky through other people’s eyes.  I became a far better observer when I had write what to look for and how to find it.  I learned more astronomy through my columns than anybody else. 

When John showed the owner how to align on Polaris, I suddenly realized I had done this years before and knew what was coming next.  Once the telescope was positioned, it couldn’t be moved to make an exact alignment.  One had to move the whole system, tripod and all.  I had done that automatically every time I observed.

As if he were listening to my thoughts, the owner asked whether it would be possible not to use a compass and just turn the tripod facing north.

“Yes,” I spoke up.  “That’s exactly how I did it.”  John looked at me like I was observing in the 1980s.  Well, I was. “It’s not exact,” I continued, “and you will have to adjust frequently, but I observed that way for years.”  All the stuff I observed I did without using a clock drive, computer, or anything other than star charts.  Many nights, I followed a dozen variable stars without even using charts.  I found the star as naturally as a musician finds the right chord in a song. I was hearing the music of the spheres.  

From observing, I became interested in eclipses and began my long career of twenty-six eclipse trips all over the world to see them.  I saw totality in the middle of the Pacific, from the Great Barrier Reef, over the Arctic and Antarctic, flights that took me over both poles, Patagonia, India, Aruba, the Bolivian Altiplano, Spain, La Paz, North, East, and South Africa, China, and Siberia.  I never thought I would see more than one; I have seen 17.  I never thought I would publish anything in astronomy—thirty-one years ago, I published an article about my experience as an astronomy columnist, and I wrote two “Focal Point” opinion pieces for Sky and Telescope one year. 

While John and the owner were talking, I knelt down by the telescope.  How many times, how many hours, how many places, had I done this?  Without thinking, my left hand went to the declination knob that controlled E-W, and my right to the right ascension knob that controlled N-S.  I was on the ground outside my house in Tucson, where I did most of my observing.  This was “muscle memory,” like playing music I had memorized on a piano, skiing the first mogul field each winter, or arriving at the first portage every summer and swinging a canoe up on my shoulders.  

I was out in the desert at 2 am recording the magnitude of a variable star in Sagittarius for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). The star had recently had an outburst and the observations were needed. One night, near the Desert Museum, I watched the Moon move tangent to a star, seeing starlight blink in and out through the lunar mountains on the edge. That grazing occultation was data for the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), to which I once belonged.  I tried to give back to the field when I could. Another summer night, I watched at 4 am as the Moon uncovered four moons and then Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky.  I saw so many meteors out of the corner of my eye when I was observing.  Fortune favors the experienced eye, and I was experienced.  During the Leonid shower of 1999, I saw three hundred meteors in less than an hour, and four times I saw 5 instantaneously. 

John had suggested that the owner see if Jerry, the EAS secretary, had any eyepieces he wasn’t using, for the owner needed a good low power eyepiece.  Jerry came over, admitted he didn’t have any, and took a look at the telescope.  He admired the age and condition, older than my 1983 purchase, for mine gave the focal length in mm and this one in inches.  Jerry identified the outlet type for the drive motor and knew the name of a store who had a cord that could plug into this unusual outlet.  He even knew the voltage.  Jerry knows just about anything, and hearing him talk makes my head shake in wonderment. 

I was so lucky to see so much, the zodiacal light from Sonoita, “false twilight” that occurs well after dark or well before morning, when the dust in the plane of the solar system is illuminated by the Sun below the horizon. I saw rainbows seven minutes after sunset.  In a thirty minute period one night, near a small cloud, I saw cloud-cloud lightning, Jupiter, and a meteor shoot between the two.  Sleeping under the stars in the high grasslands, my wife and I watched the Milky Way rise like a giant cloud–which it is.  We saw Orion reflected in a wilderness lake at 1 am and the aurora shoot across the sky in the canoe country.  An observing session was once interrupted by a rattlesnake, whose buzzing I couldn’t understand until without thinking I jumped back as the reptile slithered past my tripod to the open desert.  

I went to the meeting to make an appearance.  I had no preconceived notion what might happen and was astounded with the experience.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, for astronomy was like this many nights when I took my telescope outside, scanned the night sky with my eyes, and began to observe.


January 15, 2019

There was a recent article in the New York Times written by a woman to explain why she wasn’t returning an email.  I would have replied to your email after a few hundred more words, I am certain, except that my 11-year-old daughter came in, clutching some pieces of paper… was the style of the article.  She wrote well, and most of the comments were favorable, that these issues with which she was spending time were indeed important.

A few commented that she was fortunate to be able to work at home, have good, healthy children, but that ignoring work-related emails for many is a good way to get fired. I decided to comment, although I am at a disadvantage in that I need more time to process information than most, in order to optimize what I say.  When I used Facebook, most of my comments were “Edited,” meaning I had posted and later changed something.  Many would do well to edit what they write, since first impressions and first words usually are not what most of us truly want to convey.  But if I wait 24 hours, the comments section is closed, and if I want people to read my thoughts I need to write quickly, not after hundreds of others.  I wrote that many of my good faith emails were never replied to even though it took all of 24 seconds to write, “We regret that we have no use for your services.”

My comment got a reply that interruptions slow down a person’s ability to re-focus on what they had been doing for up to a half hour.  I agreed, but added that there is a difference between “Not Now” and “Not Ever.”

That’s really what I wanted to say to the author in the first place.  It’s acceptable not to reply to an email now.  Very few things in life are urgent, and emails can usually wait.  But Not Ever?  You mean to say you are so busy that you can’t find any time in your day or week to reply to a good faith email from someone?

I continued that interruptions in my medical practice, which were seldom truly urgent (life threatening that if I didn’t act someone would significantly deteriorate), did affect my ability to concentrate afterwards on the my care of the patient before being interrupted.  More than once, after two or three interruptions seeing the same patient, I had to explicitly ask my secretary to stop all interruptions so I could get some work done.  I didn’t know back then how badly interruptions interfered with my work, because much research hadn’t been done, except in aviation, where there is the “Sterile Cockpit Rule” below 10,000 feet, where all cockpit conversation relates to only flying the aircraft.  Nevertheless, my colleagues were quick to tell me medicine and flying airplanes were different in regards to errors.  I retorted that they were both quite similar.

[Ten years later, CVR, “Cockpit Voice Recorder,” was a big hit at medical meetings, where two people sat on a stage and read what transpired in an aviation disaster, so perhaps my thoughts earlier were on track.]

I continued, writing that hurry and fatigue were two other reasons I left medicine, both of which again were confirmed by research in part using aviation experience (The Canary Islands disaster in 1977, and the 1999 crash in Little Rock in part respectively.)

I come from a bygone era. When I practiced, we had to return phone calls from patients.  THAT was time consuming.  We had to call, wait for the individual to answer or to be summoned, often repeat ourselves, answer things we had answered in the office, try to explain something to someone without seeing their expression, and not have any sort of written summary of what we said.  I returned calls as soon as I could during the day; many others waited until the evening or didn’t return them at all. I returned my calls if I had a few minutes to do so.  They weren’t interruptions.  Most of us have a lot of time available during the day; back then, we couldn’t use social media as a time dump, but we all have a few minutes here and there that we squander on things that may not be earth shattering.  Want to have time to reply to emails?  Stay away from social media. 

Before there was email, I couldn’t make a phone call between seeing patients, unless I knew it would be very brief.  Today, many questions could be answered in that same time period. I would have loved emails back when I was practicing.  My calls could take several minutes; an email take a matter of seconds.  This is a matter of prioritizing time.  

I used to have a pile of pink slips from calls, answered by an actual human being, that I needed to make, low tech but useful, because human beings could write notes, using a pen, and convey that the patient sounded angry, sad, depressed, busy, strange.  From here, we went to voicemail, which was listened to by a human being, until people used it as a way to avoid work by ignoring them.  That’s going from Not Now to Not Ever.  I consider myself fortunate if my voicemail gets a reply.

From voicemail, we went to email, faster and easier, but I contend that my computer is strange in that it appears to send emails but doesn’t seem to receive them.  Two decades later, I still read complaints that emails are interruptions.  Like most technology, when email is used properly, it is a wonderful tool.  How can it be an interruption unless one lets it be one?  A ringing phone is an annoyance, and those in my generation learned to pick it up, because it was polite and it usually was from someone whom one knew, not Marriott or some other big chain trying to sell me something I didn’t want and my punching 2 to not get any more of these calls made no difference, nor did a national registry of Do Not Call remove these calls.

An email is quiet, unless one chooses to activate the sound letting one know there is an email, which again admittedly used to be important, not someone trying to sell military surplus or Viagra because I was foolish enough to click on a link to read some article seen on the Internet, and didn’t delete the cookie fast enough.  

We have spam filters, and while I’m not in at least the paid work force these days, it seems obvious one can have a work email address for work and a personal one.  Twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school, I had two email addresses, and that was a good screen.

Returning calls, returning emails, communicating with people who ask good faith questions either as friends, clients, or family, is a matter of prioritizing one’s time.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s as complicated as that.  

What is clear is that email, Messenger, Whatsapp, Telegram, and Twitter have not brought us together, but rather pushed us apart, allowing formerly taboo religion and politics into the public sphere, allowing thoughts from those living in caves to see the light of day, and forgetting the best communication is what it always has been, watching body language, listening to tone of voice, repeating back instructions, and seeking first to understand before being understood.